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Electronic line-calling has its fans but don’t expect to see it at the 2020 French Open



It’s a sight as emblematic of the French Open as white socks deeply stained by red clay dust: The chair umpire climbs down from the lofty perch and jogs over to inspect a skid mark in the clay near a white line. He or she inspects the mark, sometimes bending to peer closely and pointing to it, while an anxious player hovers alongside, awaiting a decision.

In or out? Did the ball touch the line or not? The umpire is the ultimate arbiter. Still, heated conversations might ensue.

Fans of this entertaining ritual have reason to fear that it will be overtaken by electronic line-calling. The 2020 US Open became the first Grand Slam tournament to feature an electronic line-calling system (Hawk-Eye Live), doing away entirely with line umpires on all but the two main stadium courts (although every match was monitored by a chair umpire). A number of recent non-tour events have also experimented with electronic line-calling, with uniformly outstanding results. But don’t expect to see electronic line-calling at the French Open.

“There will be no change on the court this year,” French Tennis Federation press officer Emmanuelle Leonetti told ESPN in an email. “Only [there will be] less staff, in general, due to the health protocol.”

Most French tennis officials and legions of fans enjoy the interactions that have always been a part — if not always an agreeable part — of the pageantry at Roland Garros. They believe that eliminating the “human factor” would hurt tennis. But an even larger obstacle exists. None of the three systems approved by the ITF for reviewing official decisions has been approved for “live” use (eliminating line umpires) at clay events.

That’s just fine with ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who is no fan of using Hawk-Eye technology on clay. “Hawkeye has a margin of error and so does reading a disputed mark, but the clay-court system has worked well for an eternity and I see no reason to change it,” Cahill said. “Plus, clay is a moving changing surface so I’m not even sure of the exact logistics surrounding how accurate Hawkeye is on clay. They might say it is, but is it really, and where is the data to back that up?”

Industry leader Hawk-Eye Live has been approved as an electronic line-calling system for hard and grass courts, but the ITF’s “joint certification” committee has not finished testing on clay. A source who has worked closely with the body, which consists of representatives from the ATP, WTA, ITF, the Grand Slams and technical experts, told ESPN:

“The mark you see [from a ball] on a clay court is not the mark Hawk-Eye or Foxtenn [a competing, approved electronic review system] sees. That has to do with speed of the ball and how the clay moves. So players will have to understand that what they see on the court is not what the camera shows.”

People are accustomed to believing what they see with their very own eyes, which makes the introduction of electronic line-calling on clay a sensitive subject. The pros had little advance notice that Hawk-Eye Live would be used so extensively at the recent “double in the bubble” tournaments, but those were on hard courts. Players embraced it — or in some cases would have if they realized it was in use.

“I didn’t even notice it until you mentioned it, literally, just now,” Hailey Baptiste, a promising 18-year-old American told ESPN after her first-round match at the US Open. “The calls were quick and easy to hear. They showed most of the close calls on the [scoreboard] so all I had to do was look up. I mean, you can’t challenge the Hawk-Eye, right?”

The accuracy as well as the reliability of the Hawk-Eye Live system in the bubble events was impressive. The system issued 314,000 “in/out” calls during the four weeks of play. James Japhet, the managing director of Hawk-Eye North America, told the New York Times that of the 225,000 calls Hawk-Eye Live made during the first week of the US Open, only 14 were erroneous — and those were caused by human error in the control room (where operators have to manually alternate the target service box after each point and signal when dedicated cameras detect a foot fault).

Those off-court human errors are one reason why every match still has a chair umpire, if no line judges.

“We’ve had four weeks of the experiment of Hawk-Eye Live. It’s been a terrific success. There’s no debate,” tournament director Stacey Allaster said on the final day of the US Open. “This was a great effort. … We couldn’t be more pleased with how it has been executed.”

Novak Djokovic, the US Open top seed, must wish he had been on one of the line umpire-free perimeter courts instead of Arthur Ashe after he was defaulted from the US Open during his fourth-round match with Pablo Carreno Busta for inadvertently hitting a line umpire with a ball hit in frustration after he lost a point. For a number of reasons leading with fear that if the Hawk-Eye Live system crashed the tournament would grind to a halt, the USTA decided to use a full complement of officials and the familiar Hawk-Eye Live challenge system on Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums.

While many voices have called for tennis to develop and adopt some sort of electronic line-calling system, the speed at which it happened was surprising. Bob Moran, the general manager of the popular WTA tournament played in April on green Har-Tru clay in Charleston, South Carolina, was excited to announce in January that his upcoming event would be the first WTA clay-court tournament to feature all-electronic line-calling, employing the Foxtenn electronic line-calling apparatus.

“We were eager,” Moran told ESPN recently. “We were absolutely looking forward to testing out the system on our five courts.”

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, closing down the game for what would be five months in mid-March. But even as it robbed Moran of a moment in the sun, the pandemic also triggered a rush to embrace electronic line-calling among the promoters of various exhibitions, the World Team Tennis league and, ultimately, sanctioned pro tour events.

“The realities of the world we’re living in at the moment, with COVID-19 and the logistical and cost implications of flying people around the world, testing them, made the technology more attractive,” Oliver Clough, tennis general manager at Hawk-Eye Innovations, told ESPN. “To some, it looked like either use the technology or struggle to be an event.”

The US Open, which customarily brought 350 line umpires to the tournament, was able to whittle it down to 74. That reduced the number of personnel USTA officials believed they needed on hand — a significant factor in earning approval from New York state and local health officials to hold the event.

Some might believe that officials fast-forwarded the evolution of tennis a little too quickly, but they haven’t gone all-in on electronic line-calling yet. It has nothing to do with cost, because the cost of the technology is not prohibitive.

Informal estimates peg the cost of Hawk-Eye Live at $50,000 per court, which includes everything from the basic video and computer hardware to travel and lodging for the Hawk-Eye technicians (each tournament court has a Hawk-Eye technician monitoring the course of a match and manually performing a few rudimentary tasks, as well as a tournament-appointed supervisor who oversees the tech). There is also the savings incurred by reducing the fleet of officials.

The reliability of Hawk-Eye Live no longer seems in question, either, although anything mechanical or electronic is subject to breakdown. In tests, players allowed to challenge the accuracy of Hawk-Eye Live calls soon gave up because the technology always confirmed the system made the right call. As well, close calls are automatically projected on the scoreboard for all to see.

But many observers really like the current challenge system, which allows players to challenge calls that are then reviewed by Hawk-Eye on the scoreboard as everyone looks on with bated breath — often accompanied by rhythmic clapping as the flight of the ball is telecast. It has become a fun part of every match, even though it doesn’t guarantee the absolute integrity of the score because a player might exhaust his three allotted challenges per set (a successful challenge doesn’t count against the three) and subsequently be unable to challenge a call that television replay shows was clearly wrong.

Hawk-Eye Live guarantees error-less officiating, but many still fear that the price, in terms of color and value-added elements — including human interaction — is too high.

Another concern, chiefly for the ITF, is that eliminating line judges will discourage people from becoming involved in officiating. The journey to the high chair begins with serving as a line judge.

“[Electronic line-calling] is a clear risk in those countries that have a Grand Slam event,” Grand Slam supervisor Stefan Fransson told ESPN. “That’s always been the carrot, to be selected as line umpire for one of the four Grand Slams, then move up to chair umpire.”

Financial considerations also enter this discussion from the debit end of the ledger. Tournaments that embrace electronic line-calling will miss out on revenue generated by contracts with clothing manufacturers who pay to clothe line umpires. That consideration played a part in the USTA’s decision to have line umpires (clothed by Ralph Lauren this year) on the two main courts.

Although electronic line-calling made an abrupt and dramatic appearance in New York this year, officials emphasize that we are not in the midst of a full-on embrace just yet. “Hawk-Eye Live was temporarily approved for use at regular ATP events this season based on COVID-19 limitations,” Simon Higson, a spokesperson for the ATP, wrote in an email to ESPN. “Tournaments that wish to use it are able to do so this year.”

Grand Slam events are not regulated by ATP Tour rules. Each of the four majors reserves the right to run their tournament the way it chooses. The long evolution of electronically enhanced officiating was jump-started in 2004 by a US Open quarterfinal in which Serena Williams was clearly denied an important point when chair umpire Maria Alves called an erroneous overrule. The very next year, the US Open, acting unilaterally, became the first major to introduce Hawk-Eye review.

“I think they [French officials] are open to it [Hawk-Eye Live],” Clough said. ” It will be interesting to see where all of them go with it. Usually, these conversions get going when there’s a catalyst — a big call missed, or some other situation.”

In this case, the coronavirus pandemic played a significant role in moving the technological ball forward. Grand Slam officials, including those in France, will certainly be examining the mark that live electronic line-calling left on tennis at the US Open.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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